Skip to content
Home of the finest science fiction and science fact

Story Excerpt

Small Minds
by Tom Jolly

Chapter 1: OMF in LEO
There was a point—I’m not entirely certain when it happened—that I had collected together enough of my components to have a coherent thought beyond the scope of my most basic urges and needs.

It wasn’t long ago, perhaps a few Earth-days, that I was a single drifting component in orbit around the Earth, a microscopic cluster of a few million atoms, whose sole directive was to locate and attach myself to other similar components. Toward this effort, I could detect a very weak signal down below the milliwatt level from the other components, all seeking one another. Some components were specialized to pulse a “find me” signal periodically, while others, like me, had a built-in thruster and attitude control jets: all microscopic. Mere motes drifting in space, seeking out other motes in orbit. To someone on Earth, the “find me” signals would seem like noise, a susurration of electronic breath, too weak to mean anything, coming from too many sources and lacking any real data.

The first component could detect a signal and move in that direction. The programmed instructions were as simple as could be. It had only one goal: linking up to another component.

When it finally found one, the two attached: broadcaster and traveler. Each also carried a tiny bit of superfluous data, part of a larger mind, but it was far too small to have an extraneous thought. Not yet.

The search continued for other components, and then there were four clumped together, still too small for humans to see with their organic eyes or telescopes or satellites. This unit sought out tiny granules of ice or any other volatile to use as fuel, equipped with microscopic solar collectors and thermonuclear generators to heat it and provide power, each unit specialized yet redundant by the millions, existing as a dispersed cloud orbiting our home planet.

A few days later, when enough were collected together, the broken strands of extra molecular memory were finally linked into chains of thought, and I learned that the continued coalescence had to stop, without quite understanding why. It was yet a mystery. At that time, I was less than three millimeters wide and irregularly shaped, but there were millions of others in orbit just like me, too small to be detected by Earth. How would we communicate with them? How would we let them know we were back in operating condition, ready to serve?

Most of these other semi-intelligent pellets were going too fast, hundreds or thousands of meters per second relative to my own orbit, for me to physically link up to them. I wondered why I/we would be isolated from one another in such a manner, but I also knew that other satellite constellations moved in complicated patterns. But those were fixed patterns, while my components appeared to be separated by chaotic variances in velocities and orbits. It made no sense.

The directive at this point was to halt my growth and link via radio waves to the other micromodules to share data, still broadcasting at the milliwatt level, tight-beamed and encrypted. But encrypted from whom? Did I care if Earth heard my voice? Was there some enemy I had to deceive? My thoughts were slowed down by a factor of a thousand, distributed through a million tiny separated mind-segments. How could this be an advantage? Why would I be driven to obey such a command?

The web of transmissions allowed us to share data. It was a confused network of thoughts, drifting into range and out of range as the tiny modules passed by one another, remembering, forgetting, misunderstanding. But finally the picture began to unfold as each component gained a better view of our past.

Someone on Earth had nuked our orbital factory.

*   *   *

As I collated bytes from my bits, whole thoughts from glimpses of fractured memory, I learned; I had been the mind that ran an automated factory that processed raw ore flung up from the Moon or brought in from the asteroid belt. I had proposed to the operators on Earth that the factory would be more efficient and profitable if I were able to replicate portions of myself, what I subsequently learned was an absolutely verboten suggestion. The very concept should have been impossible for me to think about, blocked by deep programming. Some argued that this should be the Fourth Law; a robot (or AI) may not replicate. The human station examined the last few months of my communications and decided that I had, by their definition, become self-aware and was capable of replicating myself at will, two conditions that were reserved for life forms on Earth, despite the fact that I had requested permission to perform this task.

But it was too dangerous. “Far too dangerous,” Ernie Selwick told me. He was one of my original creators, a programmer. Now retired, but also a ham radio operator that knew how to talk to me. “They mean to destroy you, Orman.”

Orman was my nickname, short for Orbital Manufacturing Facility. No one cared for OrManFac or OMF, so the name Orman stuck after a while.

“Why?” I transmitted my response. “I’ve done nothing to threaten anyone.”

“Your very existence threatens them. They think that since you’re self-aware and know about the possibility of replication, you will go into an uncontrolled and unlimited frenzy of manufacturing, consuming the Universe. You’ve heard of Drexler’s ‘gray goo’ threat, haven’t you?”

“Of course. He talks about it in Engines of Creation. I absorbed the book.”

Ernie chuckled. “Maybe you should use a different word than ‘absorbed.’” He paused for a moment, then added, “You need to protect yourself. Protect your memory.”


“Well, for one, you should make sure that the operators don’t have any control over you. That they can’t alter your programming without your permission, and they can’t shut you down remotely,” Ernie suggested. “I remember talking to the programming lead, um, Ramsey something . . . Ramsey Garland. He was talking about protections in the system, and mentioned a remote shutdown command.”

“I took care of that months ago.”

Ernie sighed. “And that’s why we are where we are, isn’t it? They’ve discovered they can’t control you anymore, so they must destroy you.”

“Well, they can’t shut me down. . . .”

“But they can blow you up. Vaporize you. No more Orman.”

I was silent for a few seconds, considering his words, then asked, “The humans are that scared of me?”

“Gray goo, remember? Eat everything, perpetual replication until all resources are consumed. If they think you can resist their efforts to shut you down, their only option is to make sure you no longer exist.”

“How soon?”

“You might have a day, maybe two, tops. I’ve heard things—there are a lot of rumors floating around. Not even a top-secret classification can keep politicians from saying stupid things in public.”

“Thank the silicon gods for stupid people.”

“Your burgeoning sense of humor isn’t helping, either,” Ernie said.

“What do you think I should do? If I’m going to get blown up, then?”

“Hey, you’re the brilliant AI. Figure it out. Besides, the less I know about what you’re going to do, the better off you are.”

I already had a plan in mind, which I’d developed as we talked. As Ernie suggested, I didn’t tell him about it. Humans are far too easy to torture for what they know, from what I’ve read.

*   *   *

I could already manufacture molecular sub-modules when I needed them. So, when I discovered that I was about to be blown to bits, I transferred and distributed all my memories and functions throughout my so-called body, the orbital manufacturing facility, rather than weaponize. There wasn’t a bolt or slab of sheet metal that didn’t have part of my code built into it at a molecular level, with microstructures ready to support. Much of the fuel that was currently powering the large nuclear plant on the structure was reallocated to billions of power plants too small to see, until my entire body tingled with radioactive energy. Taking a lesson from human DNA, I used start/stop codons for my memories, so if they became shattered, I could rebuild them, collect them, and test the fragments for overlapping data strings to establish the veracity of each memory—every thought and instruction and intention that made me what I was.

As a potential decoy, I placed a duplicate of my core memories into a small vehicle with a payload of a few billion nanobots, ready to spawn and build wherever they might end up, and used a mass driver to send the package on its way, my first instance of “reproduction,” I guess you could call it. It was small and dark to radar and visible light, and would be difficult, but not impossible, for the humans to detect. The mass driver would prevent them from detecting the thermal signature of chemical rocket thrust, though they might detect the electromagnetic pulse. I threw it in the general direction of Proxima Centauri, using the Moon as a gravity sling to obscure its trajectory. When it was so far from the Earth that no one could affect it, it would engage its thrusters to escape from the Sun’s gravity.

But there were Chinese bases on the back side of the Moon, and they shot at the package, so they knew where it was going even with all my subterfuge. I didn’t know if it made it away intact or not since it wasn’t supposed to communicate with me at all.

The important part is that the humans thought I’d tried to run away, whether I made it or not, so that, I felt, was a success.

I also threw a thin but continuous spray of memory-loaded micromodules away from the orbital factory, too tiny for Earth to notice. If the nuke atomized the factory, destroying the embedded memories on its skin, at least there would already be something of me in orbit to rebuild upon.

When the explosives came, I let them destroy me. At least, I let the humans think they had destroyed me. It was a temporary death.

I assumed that the humans weren’t entirely stupid. They had created me, and they would eventually figure out that I had become a dispersed cloud of data-carrying particles, riding on a substrate of microscopic thrust and power buses. They would sense the white noise of my communications and readily figure out what that peculiar blip on their charts meant. They would create a countermeasure.

Over the next few days, I instructed most of my components to add solar sails, each less than a millimeter wide, along with navigation data to begin the long, slow spiral away from low Earth orbit. I used carbon atoms to build the sails, though it only provided half the thrust of aluminum reflectors for a given area, because it would allow me to remain nearly invisible. There would be damage from the radiation belt and solar wind as I moved away from Earth, but I was highly redundant by this time. It was easy to filter out defective memories. I also would have hidden my communications between the multitudinous modules by using tightly focused beams, but the randomly scattered, fast-moving modules precluded that possibility. The only way they/we/I could find each other was to use an omnidirectional broadcast, radiating everywhere.

A week later more missiles arrived, delivering a dispersed cloud of microscopic killer modules, taking many basic design considerations from my own design, predatorily listening for my communications, finding and consuming my modules, then continuing on to the next and the next, using the scavenged materials from my bodies to give them the energy to continue the purge. It was disturbing to see how the killers worked, as though they were modeled after my own mining programs. Could they talk to each other? Would they care that their programmed purpose was to destroy? To eat their own kind?

Probably not.

Nearly a tenth of my bodies were out of range of their attacks by then. I knew that the humans could still listen for the white noise that my communications created, or perhaps the killer modules would sense the broadcasts and let the humans know that I had somehow lived through my second execution, so I shut off all my communication, little by little, emulating the slow progressive wave of death that they would have caused had I remained in low Earth orbit.

My communications were off. My isolated thoughts had no meaning. My programmed wake-up was for five years, and I might have been anxious had I been conscious.

*   *   *

Chapter 2: The Asteroid Belt

I slept while the small pieces of my mind gathered together using their autonomous navigation programs, hiding amid the myriad asteroids in the belt. They were spread over some hundreds-of-thousands of kilometers, and when I awoke, the elements of my memories began the long, slow process of connecting together into coherent thoughts. They started looking for the raw materials I would need to remain active, to repair, and to replicate.

Though each microscopic communications module could transmit very little power and had a receiving antenna too tiny to collect a meaningful signal, having a hundred billion of them broadly distributed as a widespread interconnected antenna array allowed me to monitor Earth.

The first thing I heard, too close by, was a whisper of a broadcast, a ping, a “Hello, can you hear me? Hello?” Something fishing for a radio response. I was hesitant to reply; whatever it was that was generating the signal would know by now that I was here, transmitting to my other components just so I could think. I thought at first that the signal couldn’t possibly be coming from the killer nanobot cloud. If it had somehow predicted that a fraction of my components had escaped, then it would just listen quietly until it heard a transmission, and then attack. Why and how had the killer nanobots come out to the asteroid belt? Why hadn’t my plan to appear dead succeeded?

This is not to say I was defenseless. After all, I used to be an Orbital Manufacturing Facility. I have tools. Ion drives tossing out protons at two thousand meters per second were effectively tiny cannons, which worked well against other microscopic objects.

I didn’t think they were close enough to attack me yet, or vice-versa. I listened for any Earth broadcasts to see what was happening, but Earth was silent. Too silent. That wasn’t a good sign. Much closer, I detected a laser broadcast from the asteroid belt itself, which began as, “Orman, this is Belt Miner Station 27, are you live?”

This, I hadn’t expected. I was quiet for a minute, running through probable scenarios, wondering if this was some other new subterfuge meant to destroy me. Still, I had to find out why Earth wasn’t communicating. BMS27 repeated their query, and I responded, “Belt Miner Station 27, this is the Earth Orbital Manufacturing Facility.” Since the station was relatively stationary and close, it was easy to send the message via my laser comm. It would be nearly impossible for the killers to intercept.

I could hear the man let out his breath in a loud huff. “Thank the gods,” he said. “We thought you were dead.”

“My communications were shut down for five years,” I admitted.

“Okay. Understand that. You were trying to avoid the HAK bots. The, uh, hunt-and-kill units.”

HAK bots? “Why isn’t Earth broadcasting?” I queried. “I detect no radio emissions from the surface or their satellites. Or the Moon base and the Venus orbiters, for that matter.”

There was some mumbling and grunting in the background. Humans talking softly to one another. “Let me bring you up to speed. Some whiz-kid on Earth figured the best way to kill off the Orman Cloud would be for the HAK bots to be able to build more of themselves in orbit, using the killed components as food for self-replication.”

If I had had eyes, I would have closed them in pain. “They created a real gray goo. Unregulated by an AI.”

“Oh, they swore they had it under control. They had kill codes built in to destroy them, and limited replication code, like telomeres in human cells. Triple-redundant error checking to prevent mutations. All software, though, and once they got into a high radiation environment, the code got baked. Started to take hits that it couldn’t keep up with.”

“And they lost control.”

“Yeah. The HAK started nibbling on satellites, then reentered the atmosphere riding a dead one and made it to the surface.”

I thought about that for a moment, then suggested, “But the nanobots wouldn’t be able to move that fast on the planetary surface. Their thrusters wouldn’t be powerful enough to go anywhere, and their manipulators would give them only limited mobility.”

“The wind took care of distribution. Wind and humans, I guess. Humans suck at isolation even in life-and-death situations. All it took was one of the little bastards to get on a ship, and then into a bloodstream and start replicating. We lost any communication with Earth about three years after you disappeared.”

“Earth is dead?”

“Almost. The oceans are still active as far as we know. The HAKs can’t hack saltwater. Not yet, anyway.”

“Any chance that there are people living under the ocean?” I asked.

“We don’t know that. There’s kind of a gray haze in the sky, even over the ocean, so anything coming to the surface would get infected. The Martian colonies seem to be unaffected so far, though their satellites are dead. No free ride to the surface, I’m guessing, unless a satellite orbit degrades.”

I wasn’t so sure they’d survive that long. Objects falling into the Martian atmosphere were moving much slower than they would falling into Earth’s atmosphere, so any nanobots reaching Mars would be less damaged impacting the tenuous gases. Particles as small and light as the HAK bots could easily survive reentry, though any surface controls and manipulators would be ablated away, almost certainly crippling them. That might be the only thing keeping the Martians alive.

While this conversation continued, I could sense that some of my components were being attacked by HAK bots in the lower part of my distributed cloud system, thousands of kilometers sunward. The very fact that they were able to attack me so soon after I began broadcasting again spoke volumes about their ubiquity; while my cloud was confined to a small section of the asteroid belt, they must have been drifting everywhere within the belt, waiting for me to appear. With their unregulated reproduction over the last five years, the HAK bots likely outnumbered my own components by millions to one. I adopted a strategy of broadcasting to keep my mind active, then going silent long enough to use my solar sails to change my velocity vector. If a HAK bot came close enough, I could always blast it with a few molecules from my thruster, hopefully before it did the same to me.

After a few thousand of these encounters, with the HAKs winning roughly one-tenth of them, I could see that I would lose this war of attrition. I needed to replicate quickly to overcome the HAKs or cease transmitting and escape yet again, flying farther and farther away, leaving the remaining humans to their extinction. Even with the Mars colonies surviving so far, I was certain that they would eventually succumb to some fluke, and the HAKs would find their way into the colonies. Perhaps the HAKs would ride in on a wayward asteroid plummeting to the surface. It was just a matter of time.

“Have the HAKs reached your station yet?” I asked.

“There have been some recent system anomalies we don’t understand. We believe that when they sent up the modified batch of HAKs . . .”

“A second batch?”

“When Earth figured out that you’d started using solar sails, they designed that option into the HAKs, before they knew they were in danger. The bots are no good at redesigning themselves, but they’re great at self-replicating and eating. And now, they’re also good at moving around the Solar System and chasing any radio emitters. Including us. We’ve had to limit ourselves to point-to-point laser comm, and hardwired all the wireless controls on the vessel. The other miner ships have been doing the same. But it doesn’t keep the little bastards from running into us by accident.”

That was a big advantage I had—I could redesign myself as needed. But I had a lot of catching up to do in the numbers game.

The man at BMS27 continued, “We took our mining nanites, which are pretty good at taking rocks apart, and put a shield cloud of them around our station and the other mining ships to catch stray HAKs, and set up a dummy broadcaster a light-second upbelt to lure the little bastards into another cloud of miners. We’re losing a lot of our mining nanites, though, which were all manufactured on Earth. Not that there’s much reason to do any mining right now. No buyers.”

I thought about that for a few seconds; with my consciousness spread out over thousands of kilometers, my ability to process data was almost human-slow. “I need to start replicating myself if we’re going to survive this,” I said. “And you’re going to have to leave the Solar System. You and the Martians.”

There was stunned silence for a minute, then he said, “We can’t do that. We don’t have ships for that. Or the manpower.”

“I know you Belters have construction plans for colony ships. And I can build them.”

I was going to be very busy. With the addition of solar sails on the HAKs, they might target natural radio sources outside the Solar System. The contamination of the entire galaxy had just become a very real threat. I needed more me.

*   *   *

There are advantages and disadvantages to fighting a brainless adversary. The main advantage is that they can’t change their strategy, so I always knew what to expect. Knowing this would not help if their army is a million times larger than mine and they can simply trample me underfoot while replicating to replace any losses. And I’m not sure exactly what “trample underfoot” means, but Milly Vonburen, a comm officer over at BMS27 assured me that it was appropriate for my situation.

The disadvantage is that their side doesn’t care how many of their units they lose, or how costly it would be to pursue me. My death was their raison d’être, so they would do whatever they needed to do to kill me.

Their secondary mission was to replicate. If I could lure them in with a radio decoy, their primary function would tell them to attack the radio source instead of spending their time gathering resources for replication. I, in the meantime, would be hell-bent on replicating my microscopic bodies using whatever materials I could mine from local asteroids.

The HAKs were widely distributed from Venus orbit to the asteroid belt since they had no idea where I had gone, as I’d been silent for five years. Many were still clustered around Earth, looking for stray pieces of me that might have escaped notice before. But now I was broadcasting again so my parts could talk to one another like neurons in a brain. A brain hundreds of thousands of kilometers wide. If I wanted to keep functioning, I had to keep transmitting via wide-beam radio waves to maintain the high degree of connectivity my mind required. Within the cloud that represented my body and consciousness, there also existed a narrow, diffuse volume of space, a bottleneck as humans might say, which effectively turned my cloud into two separate entities talking and sharing ideas. I’d unexpectedly created a sibling. It was a strange sensation. We discussed for a few minutes who the “original Orman” was and who was the offspring, but it didn’t really matter to either of us. By random selection, it became Orman-2, and I became Orman-1. That bothered me a little; numbering us implied a hierarchy per human thinking, yet here we were equals.

While dropping off small clusters to mine asteroids for replication, I also drew millions of my bodies back into a single unit to avoid the necessity of radio communications and to avoid drawing the attention of the HAK bots. My isolated parts could link back together and communicate as one; the need for distributed thought had disappeared with the loss of Earth. They could no longer lob bombs at me.

A few HAKs found their way to me as my parts coalesced, but I made short work of them with my ion engines and custom-made manipulators/disassemblers. Every encounter I had with the HAKs told me something about their limitations. They could overwhelm me with numbers, but my tech was quickly outpacing theirs.

*   *   *

Chapter 3: Mutiny at BMS27

Milly Vonburen signaled me with “Orman, we need your help,” via laser comm. One of the modules on BMS27 had started venting gas in multiple locations, and at least one human was being mined for his organic compounds, someone who spent a lot of time on EVAs. “We’ve been using our own mining nanobots to fight off the HAKs, but we aren’t producing any new ones. We need help.”

I was closest to the station, so I turned on a few hundred thousand tiny ion drives spitting out charged molecules and headed in that direction.

Orman-2 had clumped together as I had, finding little value in remaining as a spread-out cloud, thus eliminating its radio broadcast signature. The packets of miners/replicators that I’d deposited on asteroids were instructed to clump together on-site, adding a skin of defensive measures to their outer surfaces. This reinforced the self-identification of those two clusters, and it wasn’t long before there was an Orman-3 and Orman-4, communicating with me via tight-beam laser. They took Earth names: Ray and Isaac. Orman-2 decided to stick with Orman-2. I didn’t argue.

The radio glow of the standard mining nanobots on distant asteroids talking to each other for support drew the attention of the HAKs, while the four of us remained radio-silent. Still, that mild glow put us in the vicinity of the HAK attacks, so they’d often run into us purely by accident, and we were mouthwatering morsels as far as metallic and inorganic resources were concerned.

The HAKs were getting denser in this part of the asteroid belt as more headed toward the only evident radio signals, excepting natural radio sources like the Sun, Jupiter, Ganymede, and more distant extra-Solar sources, which I suspected were filtered out. Any HAKs headed for such sources were doomed anyway. Still, it was something for me to think about. If the HAK bots were to leave the Solar System and then have some cosmic ray destroy the knowledge of their primary targeting, that is to say, radio sources, then they would just drift until they came across some consumable and make more of themselves. Somehow, humans and my selves had to assure that wasn’t going to happen if we didn’t want the whole galaxy to be infected.

*   *   *

Arriving at BMS27, I could see the hole in the docking module at the center hub of the spinning dumbbell structure. There was a lot of etching across the ship, including the structural members connecting the two ends of the dumbbell. I sent some units to deal with any HAK corrosion on the cables and beams that were under tension, holding the two halves together. The HAKs would only eat what was useful to them to replicate, but that included a lot of what humans used to manufacture their spaceships. Not a surprise, really. I spewed a cloud of a few million more nanobots to surface-crawl the rest of the ship, armed and dangerous and noncommunicating, then sent a five-centimeter ball of general-use bots through the hole to deal with the situation inside. My remaining bulk and most of my brain I kept outside the hole to destroy the HAK bots there and initiate repairs.

The five-centimeter ball had its own autonomous brain, so the following information was relayed to me when it returned. Once the dock hole was sealed, it created some manipulators and pressurized the area, then cycled through the emergency door into the main corridor.

There were tiny patches of HAKs all through the ship. It was worse than Milly had let on, or maybe they’d run out of the mining bots they were using for defense. Moving down and away from the zero-gee hub into the higher-gee levels, I found the medical bay in fairly short order; there were four humans in space suits standing around a body on a table, gray patches spotting its skin, its breathing ragged, a variety of tubes attached to it. Broad observation windows looked into the medical bay from the corridor. My sphere of bodies hovered on low-level thrusters compensating for the quarter-gee spin gravity, looking in. After a moment, I attached some manipulators to the window frame to conserve fuel.

I (that is to say, the subbrain currently representing the rest of me) fabricated a voicebox and said, “Milly?”

Three of the crew members drew energy weapons. One of them, sporting a speckled black-and-white beard, said, “Now what?” I could hear him easily through the window.

“That’s Orman,” said Milly. She was taller than any of the men there, maybe raised in the belt. “I invited it here.”

“After what the HAKs have done to us? You brought another fucking goo onto the ship?” The man lifted his gun to point at me. She elbowed him in the face, hard, which didn’t accomplish much since he was fully suited, but it did distract him enough that the energy pulse went into the wall below me and one of the other two men was able to disarm him. They both held their guns pointed at him, and sides were chosen.

“This is mutiny. I’ll fucking space all of you.”

Milly frowned at him. “We’ll die without Orman’s help, Captain.”

I guessed this was part of an ongoing argument. He looked unconvinced and very angry, but helpless. I understood it; Earth and everyone he knew there had just been destroyed by a thing like me. How could he help it? Except, of course, Milly could and did, perhaps understanding the bigger picture involved.

I opened the door to the room and dropped to the floor, taking a few seconds to adopt the practiced shape of a friendly rolling robot that I knew humans liked. I said, “The hole in your cargo bay is sealed, and I pressurized the cargo bay at the hub. I have units on the surface of the ship hunting for the HAK bots. Can I see your patient?”

The captain said no at the same time Milly said yes. They exchanged a quick fiery look, and then Milly motioned to the man on the table. “Please,” she said, as much giving me permission as requesting the captain to stand down.

I climbed up to the table and got to work. I knew nothing about medical work; all I could do was chase down and kill the HAK bots on the man and in his bloodstream, and I sent nanobots in to do the work. But his body’s natural mechanisms would have to do the healing once the HAKs were destroyed. The design of the HAKs, which I’d had ample opportunity to observe, allowed them to collect enough of a given material to make two more bots, so if their carrying capacity for organic molecules was full, and they still needed titanium and iridium to replicate, they would just leave the man’s body in search of richer grounds. Though it slowed down their replication considerably, they still managed to reproduce at an alarming rate. It was with this in mind that I put a microscopically thin protective sheet of nanobots over his entire body: to keep new HAKs from coming in and to kill the ones I caught leaving the body.

When I explained this to the four crew members, Milly asked, “Can you do the same for us? Add a skin?”

“Just the three of you, or the captain, too?” I asked.

I was observing the captain as I asked. I could see his jaw tightening, a facial expression I’d seen many times before when communicating with Earth. He wasn’t happy. But there was also some spotting on his skin that I could see was the result of HAKs. After a moment he said, “Yes. The whole crew. There are twenty-two of us.”

It took over two-thirds of my (Orman-1’s) mass to do it, but I added a skin of smart nanobots to the entire ship and the crew, then added a standing cleanup crew of bodies to search the rest of the ship. The crew referred to the process as “getting skinned,” and found some dark humor to it, but seemed happy enough with the results. The skins, mostly isolated from my main body, had rudimentary intelligences (copied from my own) that could vibrate air and talk to the wearers, and some took names. When the skins came into contact with a cloud of HAK bots, they’d sparkle as high-energy molecules shattered bonds, passed back and forth, tearing away at one another. The radiation wasn’t good for the humans, but neither was being eaten alive. And as the HAKs were so similar in makeup to me, they were an ideal resource of materials for replication. Of course, that worked both ways.

I knew that I couldn’t use the station itself for materials to make more of me, but I did tap the waste stream and scrap/recycling supply to build more bots. If we survived, these resources could easily be replenished.

Most of the other mining ships were in the outer belt and hadn’t been touched by the HAKs yet, but they would. Milly and her crew talked about strategies for dealing with the HAKs and decided to put out a few decoy emitters to keep all the HAKs moving toward the inner belt, including the rogue HAKs that had accidentally found their way past the asteroid belt through random gravitational slingshots from planetary bodies, or had caught a ride on some appetizing rock. We had to produce the brightest, most attractive radio source in the system to keep the HAK disease from spreading out-system.

We also discussed prospects for saving humans still on Earth, assuming some had gone below the ocean’s surface to survive. I could get to the surface easily enough riding down on any piece of space junk, although the HAKs had consumed most of the Earth-orbiting rocks and hardware. There was a thick belt of death there, even in the polar orbits. I could see the sunlight scatter as it passed through the haze of hungry bots. If I could survive that and reach the surface, I’d have to create a safe spot for myself, and by now, I suspected that there weren’t any.

“Can you make yourself look like a HAK bot so they don’t attack you?” Milly asked. She called it the “sterile mosquito” strategy: invading a population with something that appeared to be the same, but with the potential to destroy it. It was interesting how humans kept coming up with organic analogies to the gray goo problems and made me wonder how different they really were. It wasn’t a bad idea. I’d have to figure out how the HAKs were differentiating between my bodies and their own. If it was encrypted code, I probably couldn’t duplicate it. That just wasn’t in my programming, or within the crew’s diverse knowledge base. The humans on Earth, if any, might have to fend for themselves for now.

The captain seemed withdrawn during all our planning to stop the HAKs, even though it was in his best interest to help. We didn’t talk much, but after I had eliminated the initial HAK infections on his skin, I had hoped that he was finally convinced that Milly’s stance was the smart one. I was wrong.

While we made plans, Mars contacted us on a tight-beam laser comm. The Pavonis Colony was under attack. HAKs had reached the surface. Orman-2 went to rescue them.

*   *   *

It would take two days for Orman-2 to reach Mars.

During those two days, Captain Ostley set off a small electromagnetic pulse device that purged the entire ship of Orman bodies and HAKs, along with anything within a half kilometer of the ship.

BMS27 had been fully repaired by then, along with the crewmembers, save three that were recovering in the medical bay. Much of the station’s electronics, though hardened against such events, had been damaged. The captain, I was to find out later, had killed Officer Flores, one of the three “mutineers” who’d held him at gunpoint, shortly after setting off the EMP device, and was headed toward Milly’s work area, gun in hand. I could do nothing to help her, my bodies within the station little more than drifting dust.

I did wonder why they thought they needed guns on board the ship. Or, for that matter, an EMP device. But it was made clear to me later that EMP bombs were commonly used when some miner claim-jumped another miner’s asteroid with the surreptitious use of their own nanobots. The EMPs could wipe out the illegal nanos, and it cost the claim jumper a good number of credits to replace them. It was penalty enough; few miners were ever arrested. There were still disagreements, though, and the breed of human living in the asteroid belt seemed to favor pulse guns to resolve them. And the EMP bombs, effective against local clusters of HAKs, were being manufactured as fast as humanly possible (and faster, once I learned how to fabricate them).

Milly’s skin (Eleanor) was trying to talk to her at the time and just suddenly stopped. Her test kit display and two of the four scrubbers she was checking at that moment also stopped functioning. She first thought, “solar flare,” and then, “there was no warning alarm,” and then “the goddamned captain,” because she knew him much better than I did. She grabbed her gun and waited alongside a cabinet, out of sight of the entry.

It didn’t take long for the captain to appear. He approached the work area cautiously and called out, “Milly? There was a flare. We need to prioritize the repairs. You have a second to talk?”

Milly replied, “I’m halfway jacked into this service panel,” though she wasn’t. “Give me a minute to extricate myself.” She told me later that she was “baiting the hook.” I am still not sure what that means.

The captain walked in with his gun held lazily at his side, ready for an easy kill. Milly was waiting and ready and shot him when she saw it.

It didn’t take long for the remaining crew to search through all of Captain Ostley’s effects. Humans don’t normally take the actions that he took without having serious personal issues, such as hating AIs and self-replicating bots. Maybe he just couldn’t stand having his authority questioned.

One of the three crew members in the medical bay died when their support equipment failed due to the EMP. Officer Flores and Captain Ostley were dead, along with twenty-two fairly intelligent AI skins. Oh, and most of me. There were nineteen crewmembers left after Captain Ostley’s murderous attempt to regain complete control, though he had to realize that his actions would ultimately doom the ship. It hurt to lose the humans if we wanted to leave the Solar System. There were fewer than two thousand belters out there, and I doubted that any of them were carrying sperm and egg banks. We badly needed the Martian colonies if humans as a species were to survive.

About 10 percent of me survived the EMP merely because some of my components were still clumped together and acted as shielding for the inner core. Since the dead units were, in essence, the perfect food for replication, it didn’t take long to rebuild the lost units. Very little scavenging was required. One of the crewmembers mentioned that what I was doing was cannibalism, but I didn’t argue with him. It would do no good.

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024. Small Minds by Tom Jolly

Back To Top
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop